Wednesday 23 August 2017

Classical... Joining the dots: music's smooth makeover

Popular music morphs into many different forms. I well remember when independent radio burst on to the Irish scene - legitimately - over 25 years ago how the slogan of one of the stations trumpeted the sounds of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and today. There was enough of a difference to draw those distinctions.

It's been said here before how classical with a small "c" covers all manner of different types of serious music. Classical, with a capital "C", took in the period that straddled the latter part of the 18th century and the opening decades of the 19th. Like the music of the past 50 years, this too was all about evolution.

There had been a lot of formality about the Baroque. A great deal of it was church music. Now that things were changing in the world outside, other kinds of forces were coming into play.

If you'd a big house, and a big estate, and you wanted to flash your cash, there were no fancy cars or football clubs to satisfy your ego. Instead, you did that by building up the best house band, and then hiring the top man to write the music and to lead it.

That's how Joseph Haydn got his break. He was hired by the Esterházys, one of the wealthiest families in the Austrian empire, and over 40 years in their service at Eisenstadt near Vienna carved out his place in musical history. Mozart wrote to order too.

So now you've got a changing dynamic. You've an audience to satisfy. The building blocks of Baroque music no longer cut the mustard. Something new, something challenging had to be found.

What developed was music that was freer in form than the carefully constructed dynamism of the Baroque. Things got a bit simpler. Now you could pick out the tune. The music was still a collective enterprise, but where the Baroque was about everybody in it all at once, now we had the evolution of the idea that a melodic line could take centre stage, and the rest of what was there was its accompaniment.

So where Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, for instance, were all about their energy, there was a little more to it now. Yes, there's still a driving rhythm in the opening movement of a Mozart symphony, say, but here, it's more about a lead being taken, with a back-up band offering support.

You can actually trace this evolution going on. An early symphony like Mozart's 7th, written in 1768 when he was just turning 12, has a lot of the Baroque about it, but fast forward 20 years, and you'll find his Symphony No 39, which is firmly stamped Classical. Musical themes are laid out, developed, then restated (or, in musical parlance, recapitulated).

The perfect example of this is the Trio section of the third movement, where the woodwind takes centre stage with a little subsequent assistance from the brass to fill out the charming little dance sequence that is one this symphony's particular delights.

It also highlights another aspect of the classical era, the availability of a broader canvas of instrumental sounds. The Baroque orchestra had basically been strings with a harpsichord. Mozart could also make full use of a section made up of clarinets and bassoons, oboes and horns.

You can track down any of these pieces for a quick listen on YouTube but if you fancy a clever exploration of the way one era gave way to another, may I recommend a tribute CD to the late Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha on the Decca Eloquence label (ELQ4807673). Bach's Keyboard Concerto No 5 in F minor (written for the harpsichord, the available keyboard in his time), is teamed with two in the early classical style, Haydn's Concerto No 2 in D major, and Mozart's Concerto No 12 in A.

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